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How to milk profits from goat farming

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Jan with his family. When he first moved to Lorrha, Nenagh in Co Tipperary he brought 80 milking goats with him and has since built his herd up to 240 milkers

Jan with his family. When he first moved to Lorrha, Nenagh in Co Tipperary he brought 80 milking goats with him and has since built his herd up to 240 milkers

Jan with his family. When he first moved to Lorrha, Nenagh in Co Tipperary he brought 80 milking goats with him and has since built his herd up to 240 milkers

Up to 10 new enquiries every week. Four brand new commercial units this year. Foundation stock like gold dust and soaring prices for young stock.

Modern, health conscious and organic, goat farming is fast becoming the rural equivalent of the smoothie bar.

Our new-found fascination with all things pure and natural has driven demand for goat's milk, yoghurt and cheese to the point where mothers exchange tips on the internet on the best way to secure their supply.

Allergy to cow's milk is the most common food allergy in childhood, and affects between 2pc and 7pc of babies under one year of age, although up to 90pc are resolved by the age of three.

Although the constituents of goat's milk are broadly similar to cow's milk, the fat and protein type and structure are quite different, and children can digest it more easily. Anecdotal evidence suggests that goat's milk could be beneficial to the country's 475,000 registered asthmatics and the 23pc of the population who suffer from allergies.

"One word of advice is to buy in bulk as they fly off the shelf. You could even find out what day it's delivered and buy your week's supply on that day," reads the missive from one mother.

"I managed to find out the delivery date in one shop and it saved my life as people literally buy five or six litres at a time," reads another.

High demand

Farmers and other rural dwellers have cottoned on to the fact that this high demand could leave them with a healthy profit in their pocket by setting up a goat farm.

The goat population is on the increase, with 8,000 goats recorded in 2007. With more than 300 goat holdings in the country, 200 of these have less than 10 goats.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are several large-scale producers who have several hundred goats each. Four new units of 200, 250, 300 and 400 goats are coming on stream this year. In fact the only limiting factor to the growth of the population is the scarcity of foundation stock.

Enquiries about goat farming to Teagasc have doubled in the last year and one of the country's top goat farmers says he never has a week without two or three visits from potential new entrants.

However, Teagasc adviser and goat specialist John Twomey has warned that goat farming could become the new deer farming. "Too many people blindly rushed into deer farming," he says. "There is a danger that too many of the wrong type of people could get into goat farming."

Often typecast as a tough, resilient animal, capable of fending for itself and requiring little input, it will surprise many to hear that the goat requires more intensive management than the best dairy cows in the country.

"The general perception is that they are hardy creatures that would live on fresh air," says John. "But you couldn't be more wrong. Goats are the most refined and selective of all the farm animals.

"They are browsers rather than grazers so they pick and choose what they eat and never touch soiled food. A goat would die of thirst rather than drink dirty water," he says.

Extremely susceptible to listeriosis and associated problems, musty hay and silage are a serious no-no for the animals as they quickly develop illness and die easily.

No sub-cutaneous fat

Despite their reputation for surviving alone in harsh mountain areas, it appears that goats are softer than we realise. They have little or no sub-cutaneous fat, which makes them very vulnerable to cold and wet conditions.

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"The goats you see on the mountain never rear more than one kid and even that's a struggle," says John. "Our dairy goats need shelter from the wind and rain or else they will get a chill or pneumonia."

In fact, most dairy goats are kept indoors permanently to protect them from extremes of weather and even the collecting yard for the milking parlour is covered to prevent chills.

Changes to their diet must be very gradual to prevent stomach upset and even the introduction of new animals to the herd can cause major stress within the group. It can take up to two years for a group of goats to settle and stop fighting.

Jan Boons is a Dutch man who relocated from Holland to Ireland in 2000 to set up his own dairy goat herd. His background was not in goats but in cows, with his father producing organic milk from his 120-cow herd.

Jan's interest in goats began in Holland as more of a hobby. "I preferred them to cows because they were more pleasant, they had more character," he explains.

When he first moved to Lorrha, Nenagh in Co Tipperary he brought 80 milking goats with him and has since built his herd up to 240 milkers.

Producing 900l of milk on average, the goats are kept indoors all year round and fed home-grown silage that is cut by January and baled by a local contractor. A specially-designed goat ration was proving too expensive to feed, so an 18pc protein dairy cow nut replaced it in recent years.

During the summer, grass is cut off the 57ac farm and brought indoors to the goats.

"It's too awkward to leave the goats to graze outdoors," he says. "I would have to bring them in every time it rained and they would be in and out all day.

"As well as that, they are not good grazers -- it's their nature to pick at bits here and there, not graze each paddock down to the last."

Goats are highly-strung animals that tend to frighten easily and even the slightest disturbance can cause mass panic and trigger a stampede in the paddock that increases the stress and reduces milk production.

The goats are kept indoors in straw-bedded sheds and divided according to their status. Two hundred milking goats are kept in one shed, while another 100 young females are reared in another shed.

Females due to kid down are separated from the main herd to avoid injury. Around 95pc of them kid without any assistance and, unlike their bovine counterparts, rarely give birth at night.

Useless males

Female kids are taken from their mothers within two days and hand reared on artificial milk because it would be too expensive to rear them on goat's milk.

Male kids have little or no economic value and are put down immediately after birth and sent to the local knackery.

"There is just no market for them and they cost too much to bring up. They are more expensive than sheep to rear," explains the farmer.

Twin births are the most common occurrence, although singles and triplets are also born. Although Jan does not select his goats on their birth rate, it is most often the bigger twin-producing goats that give most milk and are less likely to be culled.

Light treatment is used to extend the breeding season for the herd because the demand for milk is highest during the natural off-season. Lights remain on for 20 hours out of 24 for a period of two months and then all light is switched off for one month to induce heat in the females and prepare the bucks for service.

Although he brought his own pump and receiver jar for the 20-unit milking parlour with him from Holland, there is no problem sourcing goat equipment in Ireland.

"There is no real specialised goat machinery supplier, but the main cow suppliers have all the right equipment," explains Jan.

With the price of goat milk hovering around 69c/l, the Glenisk supplier says there has been talk of a price rise for the last four or five months but no sign of it coming yet.


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